Bilby’s Small Arms at Gettysburg Review

Joseph Bilby’s Small Arms at Gettysburg is much more than just a look at the hardware used in America’s greatest battle. Bilby is unusual in having not only the hands-on skills as a long-time black powder shooter (as well as being a columnist for Civil War News) but the eye of a tactical historian as well. The fact that he writes well is a nice bonus also—rather than being an arms catalog the book is crisply written using combat anecdotes mixed with sound small unit analysis. It’s not just a look at Gettysburg but a much broader commentary on the use and adoption of various types of weapons during the entire war. In terms of weapons technology, Gettysburg was a watershed event since it was the first really large-scale battle in which almost all infantrymen carried the rifle-musket (less than one in ten was armed with a smoothbore). Thus the battle is worth studying for that reason alone, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s trying to form an opinion about the ongoing controversy about the relative effectiveness of the rifle musket vs. the smoothbore. “Here we learn,” says the web promo, “that the smoothbore musket. although beloved by some who carried it, sang its swan song, the rifle-musket came into its own, and the repeating rifle, although tactically mishandled, gave promise a glimpse of future promise.”

The book is divided into sections by weapons: breechloading carbines, which features an extended discussion of John Buford’s cavalry delaying action on July 1; three sections on the rifle-musket; then one section each on the smoothbore musket; the repeating rifle; sharpshooters; and six guns and sabers, a chapter on cavalry weapons. The three chapters on the rifle-musket (so called because it duplicated the length of the existing smoothbore fusil) comprise a mini-history of the subject, and Bilby notes that it was ironic that this new technology verged on obsolescence in 1863 (it would retired in favor of the breechloader in 1866). Bilby’s method is to research the history of each type of weapon, consulting both contemporary and period sources for information. What makes him unusual is that he then goes out and actually shoots the weapons (or replicas) to confirm what he read. Few authors (including myself) have actually gone out and compared the accuracy of a smoothbore musket and a rifle at a hundred yards and beyond. Granted, it’s hard to duplicate the combat “pucker factor,” but it does give you a better idea than comparing figures from a book. He confirms that a smoothbore reliably can hit a man-sized target a hundred yards and a large formation at two hundred, pretty much echoing period British figures. Using “buck and ball” (one .69 cal. ball and 3 buckshot), the smoothbore was deadly at close range and was preferred by some units like the Irish brigade. One Union colonel, George Willard, even proposed in 1863 that the army go back to smoothbores because it was a superior weapon (there was no indication that anyone took him seriously and he died at Gettysburg). Bilby concludes:

Loaded with buck and ball … it was not the hopelessly ineffectual arm it has often been characterized as. Smoothbore fire delivered on large-unit formations was certainly accurate enough to cause significant casualties at distances up to 200 yards, the range at which most Gettysburg combat was initiated. … The musket’s most significant shortcoming would be on the skirmish line, where accuracy at individual targets was required, and it could not compete with the more accurate rifle-musket, especially in the hands of Confederate soldiers detailed to special sharpshooter battalions who used their arms effectively at the ranges they were capable of.

Nevertheless, both Union and Confederate armies rushed to rearm themselves with rifles as fast as possible, and by the end of the war the smoothbore was pretty much a memory. Yet in recent years some pundits like Paddy Griffith (a well-respected military historian) have, like Colonel Willard, proposed that the rifle musket made little difference in tactics. I will not enter the fray here just yet, but will note that historian Earl Hess has an book upcoming on the subject this fall. Much of the argument has centered over comparing the maximum ranges of the weapons to their actual combat usage. Griffith pioneered the genre in his 1987 book Battle Tactics of the Civil War by doing a more or less random survey of the distances of engagements in the OR and some regimental histories; Brent Nosworthy (The Bloody Crucible of Courage) improved on this by using computer searches of the newly digitized OR. Bilby literally goes one step further by actually walking the ground at Gettysburg—one of the few battlefields where troop positions are well enough documented to permit this—and surveying the engagement ranges with a Leica CRF 900 laser rangefinder. Thus he concludes that the “average” engagement range at Gettysburg was at around 200 yards. This is significantly greater than Griffith’s estimate of 68 yards for the Napoleonic period, but Bilby surprisingly concludes that this range is valid regardless of the type of weapon i.e. that smoothbore-armed troops also fired at this range. In the end, the armies concluded that there was little sense in having two types of shoulder arms in an infantry regiment and went with the more versatile rifle-musket.

In the chapter on sharpshooters Bilby carefully examines Hiram Berdan’s action in Pitzer’s Woods against Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabamians (which I’ve looked at myself). In spite of their special Sharps rifles and extensive marksmanship practice, they failed to inflict a disproportionate number of casualties on Wilcox’s men, despite postwar claims to the contrary. No book on Gettysburg would be complete without a look at the sharpshooters at Devil’s Den. There was sharpshooting there, but no more than on other sectors of the battlefield, and the legend owes more to romanticized postwar battlefield tours than to actual events. For example, Bilby notes that as far as service rifles were concerned, the “barleycorn” front sight of the Springfield or Enfield rifle-musket completely obscures a man-sized figure at anything over 500 yards, making precision sharpshooting virtually impossible beyond that distance. Thus the Confederate sharpshooters at Devil’s Den, who did not have specialized rifles, would have found it difficult to use anything but area fire against the men on Little Round Top at a measured range of some 580 yards. This is not to say, however, that the sharpshooters on both sides did not do a great deal of damage.

There are a few mistakes in Small Arms of Gettysburg, but none so far as I can see are firearms-related. In a section on the use of the smoothbore, Bilby states that the 88th Pennsylvania captured the flag of the Sixteenth Alabama. This is indeed what John Vautier’s regimental history says, but the Sixteenth Alabama served in the western theater and was never anywhere near Gettysburg. Most likely the flag was that of the 26th Alabama of O’Neal’s brigade.

Physically the book is the excellent quality product we have come to expect from Westholme Publishing, although though the bucolic cover photo doesn’t exactly grab the eye and gives little idea of the book’s content. Overall, this is an excellent book for any scholar of the war, particularly those interested its tactical aspects. Weapons determine tactics, and tactics drive strategy.

Disclosure—I have never actually met Joe Bilby but we have become cyberfriends over the years, and he’s been very generous with his knowledge of period firearms. I did review parts of this book prior to publication.

UPDATE: Forgot to post the particulars:

Small Arms at Gettysburg
Infantry and Cavalry Weapons in
America’s Greatest Battle
Joseph G. Bilby

$29.95 / 6 x 9.25 / 35 b/w illustrations / 288 pages / Jacketed Hardback / ISBN 978-1-59416-054-7 / ISBN 10: 1-59416-054-6 /

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3 responses to “Bilby’s Small Arms at Gettysburg Review”

  1. […] only one that’s done this is Joe Bilby. I mentioned this earlier in a review of his book,  Small Arms at Gettysburg,  which I would recommend to anyone interested in this controversy. Gettysburg is probably the […]

  2. […] and measure the distance. So far the only one I know who’s actually done this is Joe Bilby in Small Arms at Gettysburg. It seems odd that Hess did not do at least some of this, since he did a great deal of tramping and […]

  3. […] time ago I did a review of Joe Bilby’s Small Arms at Gettyburg, which I thought was the best look yet at mid-war engagement ranges. After a careful look at both […]

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